By Nicholas Scutari
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ordered a review of marijuana enforcement policies at the federal level.
It’s too early to know if he will reverse the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to marijuana in the states – an approach supported by 71 percent of the public. But one thing is clear: Legalization is working in states that have approved it, and we can’t afford to roll back progress with a renewed focus on the failed “War on Marijuana” that has ruined countless American lives.
Eight states have legalized recreational marijuana by referendum and, this week, Vermont’s state Legislature became the first to approve a legalization bill and send it to the governor. New Jersey should do the same, and we should do it while we’re at the forefront of legalization in the region.
Representatives in states across the country are seriously considering recreational marijuana after its widespread success, and Philadelphia’s mayor recently voiced his support for legalization in Pennsylvania.
It’s a policy that makes sense, and public support for legalization is at an all-time high – for good reason.
States like Colorado have not seen the doom-and-gloom scenarios many predicted before legalization.
Last year, I led a bipartisan delegation of legislators to the state to examine its recreational marijuana program, and what we found was a highly-regulated industry that has proven successful in nearly every aspect.
In 2016, the program’s third year, Colorado reported a record $1.3 billion in medical and retail sales of marijuana and an estimated $200 million in taxes. That doesn’t include the broader economic impact of the business on the state.
Colorado has benefited immensely from reallocating local police resources to other types of crime since marijuana-related arrests have plummeted. Officials have not seen an increase in adolescent use or reported a problem with cannabis-related DWIs. The downtowns in Denver and neighboring communities are clean and safe.
By contrast, the negative impacts of the failed “War on Marijuana” cannot be overstated. New Jersey spends more than $100 million a year on enforcement of marijuana laws, and possession made up more than 40 percent of all drug arrests in 2010. We are locking up people for petty charges and creating unfair obstacles to our residents getting jobs and buying homes.
Legalizing marijuana in New Jersey would allow law enforcement to focus their efforts and resources on the areas where they are most needed.
It will generate millions of dollars in tax revenue that can by dedicated to any number of worthy programs, such as substance abuse treatment and prevention efforts, transportation and women’s health. And it will create thousands of jobs.
It will also eliminate the detrimental effect that a marijuana arrest can have on our residents’ lives.
Finally, legalization will remove drug dealers from our street corners and take marijuana out of the hands of cartels – which decriminalization would not do.
More than two years ago, I started the conversation in New Jersey about setting up a system to legalize small amounts of marijuana for those who are age 21 and older, and to regulate and tax the product.
Since that time, I’ve done extensive research, and met with state officials, regulators, law enforcement, cultivation and retail facility owners in Colorado and elsewhere. I’ve held meetings with experts from across the spectrum on this issue.
I’m convinced it’s time to move ahead with regulating, taxing and legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes in New Jersey.
No other law has the ability to create tens of thousands of jobs, to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in direct tax revenue, and billions in terms of economic impact.
Nothing else we do can reduce the excessive burden on law enforcement and the courts resulting from drug charges, or help the thousands of people who otherwise will have a permanent criminal record as a result of marijuana possession.
On Monday, I will introduce new legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, based on all the research I’ve conducted over the last two years. It is time to begin the process of shaping New Jersey’s legal recreational marijuana program for years to come. In fact, it’s long overdue.
Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, a Democrat, is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties.